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Goodbye To Butterflies And Caterpillars

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch says the Democratic Party can learn a few things from a new study of the 2000 Florida presidential election.

Last December, I asked a Gore operative when she realized they had a problem with the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County.

"Five minutes after the polls opened," she replied. "Senior citizens, many of whom were Jewish, started calling hysterically saying they had just voted for Pat Buchanan."

Last week, an exhaustive recount of the Florida presidential vote by a consortium of news organizations was released and it is the Gore campaign and the Democratic Party who should be hysterical.

Not only did the Gore folks pursue the wrong strategy of asking for a hand count of undercounted votes only in four south Florida counties, but thousands of votes all over the state intended for Gore were discarded because of errors made in filling out ballots. In Palm Beach County alone the results indicate that a less confusing ballot might have netted an additional 6,286 votes for Gore, more than enough to overcome Bush's statewide margin of 537 votes. In Duval County the two-page "caterpillar ballot," which confused people into thinking they should vote for one candidate per page, may have cost Gore another 1,999 votes.

The new study showed clearly that the precincts with the highest number of black and elderly voters were most likely to have lost votes. Black precincts had three times as many ballots rejected as white precincts; 9 to 10 percent of votes in predominantly black districts were invalidated, compared to 2 percent in mainly white precincts.

Since Al Gore got 93 percent of the vote from blacks in Florida, these findings show the magnitude of the problem for the Democrats.

Why did it happen and what can be done to remedy the situation in the future? Virtually every Democratic campaign operative agrees that no one recognized the extent of the problem prior to 2000. The DNC and the Gore campaign spent over $30 million getting out the vote, but almost all of it dealt with getting people on the rolls and to the polls – not with what they'd do once they got there. There were efforts to make sure minority voters were not "intimidated" from voting and that registration rolls were not unfairly purged, but voter education – especially for less-educated, first-time or disabled voters – was not in the budget.

Nor was it in the budget of the state of Florida. Every year Florida spends about $30 million telling people how to play the state lottery, but until this year virtually nothing was spent to instruct people how to cast a ballot for president.

In the aftermath of the 2000 election, Florida counties plan to spend about $125 million on new voting equipment and about $5.4 million on voter education. Most have substituted touch screen or optical sca machines for the maligned Vote-o-matics. Many of these have a "second-chance" provision in which the machine spits back the ballot if someone has "over-voted." Kevin Jefferson of the DNC's Voting Rights Institute cites the effectiveness of this technology in Detroit, where the error rate went from 7.8 percent to under 1 percent when the system was employed.

The Voting Rights Institute was formed by DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe at the request of Rep. Maxine Waters, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile to deal with some of these issues. They say in the 2001 elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats had over 500 volunteer lawyers working the polls to make sure that voting went smoothly.

But strange as it seems, many Democratic operatives contend that it is not their job to educate voters. They shift the blame and the responsibility to the counties or states and say that they or nonpartisan organizations should carry out that task. They argue that voter education will cut into their budget for getting people to the polls and put Democrats at a disadvantage.

One place where money for new technology and voter education may be available is Congress. The Ney-Hoyer bill, which was marked up last week, has some money for educating poll workers, but none for educating the electorate. The Dodd-Conyers bill, which has the backing of the NAACP and over 60 liberal groups, has money for both. Hillary Shelton of the NAACP strongly opposes Ney-Hoyer because it allows states to "opt out" of many of the provisions. "It takes both technology and education to solve this problem," he says, and "only Conyers-Dodd mandates and funds both."

The Bush administration is still silent in its commitment to funding election reform legislation. And given the partisan advantage it may give Democrats, getting a strong fully funded bill enacted may be problematic. But if the Democrats don't want to repeat their disastrous mistake of 2000, maybe they will decide that "making every vote count" isn't just a good slogan but a requirement for survival. If it's not their job to make sure that Democratic votes are counted, it's hard to believe they really want to win.

©MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

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